No. 3 Arizona’s finding its collective rhythm offensively

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On February 1 the season changed for No. 3 Arizona. That day may have been capped by a 60-58 loss at Cal, but the biggest loss was that of sophomore Brandon Ashley. Ruled out for the remainder of the season due to a broken foot, Ashley was one of Arizona’s most versatile players on both ends of the floor. To lose a player of his status requires an adjustment period, with the remaining players needing to get used to new roles.

And after their 88-61 win at Colorado in which the Wildcats put together a second half that ranks among their best halves of basketball all season long, Sean Miller’s team followed that performance with an 87-59 whipping of the Golden Bears in Tucson.

Nick Johnson led five Wildcats in double figures with 22 points (seven rebounds and five assists as well), and as a team Arizona shot 50.8% from the field. Eighteen of their 32 field goals were assisted, and Arizona also racked up 30 points in the paint with Cal big men David Kravish and Richard Solomon struggling with early foul trouble. Offensively speaking, Arizona’s performance on Wednesday was another step forward for a group that needed time to adjust to playing without Ashley.

In their last three halves of basketball Arizona’s shot 54-for-89, which works out to a “solid” 60.7%. With their ability to attack teams with both the dribble and the pass, Arizona’s done a good job during this recent run of not settling for long-range shots. In their last three halves of play, 71.9% of Arizona’s field goal attempts have been two-point shots. And when they have taken perimeter shots Arizona’s converted, making 12 of their 25 attempts (48%) from beyond the arc.

The only player to have issues offensively on Wednesday night was Gabe York (1-for-7 FG), but as he did against Colorado (ten rebounds) the sophomore contributed in other areas. York accounted for five rebounds and five assists, one of three Wildcats to tally at least five helpers on the night with Johnson (five) and T.J. McConnell (six) being the others. And with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson adding 12 points and ten rebounds off the bench, York’s quiet shooting night was even less of a concern.

Arizona’s ability to defend wasn’t going to change as a result of Ashley’s injury. The offensive end of the floor was where the concerns lie and that took longer to fine-tune, which is to be expected when considering how valuable Ashley was. But if anything’s to be taken from the last three halves of basketball that Arizona has played, it’s that they’re getting more comfortable with their adjusted responsibilities on that end of the floor. And that makes Arizona every bit the threat to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

Knee injury sidelines Illinois forward Leron Black

Josh Hart, Leron Black
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Illinois will be shorthanded in its front court for the time being, as during the team’s media day Thursday head coach John Groce announced that sophomore forward Leron Black is out due to injury.

Black will undergo surgery Friday to repair a meniscus tear in his knee, and he’s expected to miss anywhere from four to six weeks. A return after four weeks would have Black back on the court just before the Fighting Illini open their season November 13 against North Florida. Any longer and the Memphis native would wind up missing some game action.

Black averaged 5.0 points and 4.3 rebounds in just under 15 minutes of action per game as a freshman. He’s one of the players expected to contribute in the front court for the Fighting Illini, who lost their best interior defender and second-leading rebounder in Nnanna Egwu at the end of last season (guard Rayvonte Rice, who led the team in rebounding, is also gone).

In addition to Black and junior Maverick Morgan, Illinois adds redshirt freshman Michael Finke and grad student Mike Thorne Jr. (via Charlotte) to their front court rotation.

Coach Hamilton likes mix on Florida State basketball roster

ACC Basketball Tournament: Florida State v North Carolina
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) Florida State is the only team in the Atlantic Coast Conference that returns all five of its starters from last season.

For most teams that would be cause for celebration. For coach Leonard Hamilton it means he is hoping the struggles of the past two seasons have been valuable experience.

The Seminoles had their first practice on Wednesday as they are looking to bounce back from a season in which they went 17-16 and didn’t play in a postseason tournament for the first time in 10 years.

“We have five starters returning from a team that won 17 games. We have guys that have been around, who know their shortcomings and can pass on their wisdom to the younger players,” Hamilton said.

With an experienced roster and a highly regarded recruiting class, Hamilton is hoping to lead the Seminoles back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, which is also the year they won the ACC Tournament.

Jarquez Smith, the leading returning scorer from last season, said the open gyms before the start of practice have been extremely competitive as the incoming recruiting class has tried to assert itself early.

“We’ve been going at each other’s neck and it has gotten very competitive,” Smith said. “Everyone is fighting for their position because the guys coming off the bench are just as athletic as who is on the court.”

The newcomers feature Dwayne Bacon (a McDonald’s All-American selection), Terance Mann (the Gatorade Player of the Year in New Hampshire) and Malik Beasley (the Georgia 1A Player of the Year). There’s also Chris Koumadje, who at 7-foot-4 will be the tallest player in school history, and Benji Bell, who helped lead Northwest Florida State to the JUCO National Title.

“This is a very confident and focused group of inexperienced players,” Hamilton said. “They want to make something special happen but aren’t taking anything for granted.”

Two things that Hamilton will look to work on during preseason practices is defense and figuring out his rotation. The Seminoles suffered from a lack of depth last season but this year he could have a roster that goes 10 deep and allows him to go to more of a full-court pressing style of defense.

Xavier Rahan-Mayes led the team in scoring last season, averaging 14.9 points en route to becoming the first freshman in ACC history to score 30 or more points three times. The one thing he said he noticed in preseason practices were that everyone played off each other’s strengths.

Florida State’s first exhibition game is Nov. 2 against Lynn University before opening the season on Nov. 15 against Nicholls State.

“I think we have a pretty good combination of experience and an influx of new players. Any time you have that type of scenario you appreciate it,” Hamilton said. “It looks like we have it moving in the right direction. We’ve had a good offseason and regrouped.”